Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Farewell To Barnhart, Angstadt

I won't spend too much time on this news this morning, but as you may have heard, Brian Barnhart's days in Race Control are now a thing of the past. Although he may stay on as president of operations, his time influencing on-the-track action is at an end.

Although I never enjoy seeing anyone removed from a position, I think most would argue it was time for this move. Race Control demands a person that has the confidence of drivers, fans, and teams alike, and once that confidence is gone, there's not a whole lot that can be done to bring it back. Without getting deep into the chaos at New Hampshire or look of the starts at Indy during his tenure, that's the point a majority of stakeholders in this sport had reached, and so it became time for the change to be made.

With Terry Angstadt also leaving (not just his position as commercial president), but INDYCAR), I think  it's appropriate to remember how instrumental Angstadt was in bringing IZOD in a series title sponsor. Whatever else happened or didn't happen with the commercial division with Angstadt at the helm, securing the IZOD sponsorship has been a huge plus for the series.

Best of luck to both these men in the next stages of their careers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Six Quick Questions With Jack Hawksworth

If you had to pick a name that just sounds like it belongs to a British racing driver, you couldn’t go wrong with “Jack Hawksworth”. Coming from the Formula Renault 2.0 UK ranks and after topping the speed charts at the Chris Griffis Mazda Road to Indy Memorial Test, Hawksworth was signed by Team Pelfrey to contest the 2012 Star Mazda season. That also made him a prime candidate to be our next participant for Six Quick Questions. We asked Jack about Euro vs. American open wheel prospects, testing for Star Mazda, and more. Keep reading, and discover a bit more about this young driver primed to compete for next year’s Star Mazda Championship:

Jack, welcome! You managed to top the speed charts at the recent Chris Griffis Mazda Road to Indy Memorial Test, held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What do you think of the Star Mazda formula from an open wheel driver's perspective?

JH: I've really enjoyed driving the Star Mazda car so far, it's a lot of fun and quite a challenge so you really feel as a driver you have to be on the ball when driving this car. As a category it's really appealing a mixture of street courses, ovals and road circuits as well as a fantastic prize for the champion makes the series stand out amongst others.

You're coming from a season spent in Formula Renault UK 2.0. From your point of view, what are the benefits of transitioning to the American open wheel ladder?

JH: The biggest thing is the structure (career ladder) in American open wheel. It's much easier to understand the different levels and which category you should be racing in compared to Europe where at the moment there is too many different classes and no structure. There are also some fantastic prizes and scholarships on offers which is a massive incentive to the drivers and teams.

We talk a lot about the state of the American open wheel ladder, but from someone who's recently been on the other side of things in Europe, how do the drivers see the ladder prospects over there?

JH: Like I said previously, in Europe at the moment there is just no direct structure to any of the category's and for the drivers it is difficult to know which way to go. When you compare this to the Ladder that Mazda and INDYCAR have set up you can see that they have got it right. I expect even more European drivers to head to the U.S.A in the next few years.

Are you looking forward to contesting the oval portion of the Star Mazda schedule, or are there any venues you're especially excited to try?

JH: Yes I'm really looking forward to the ovals and all the different disciplines and circuits on the calendar next year. As a driver it is a massive challenge to adapt to all these different types of circuits but that's what gives you the buzz and why we all go racing!

How much have you seen of the IZOD IndyCar Series, and do you have any favorite drivers or teams?

JH: I’ve always been a fan of INDY and like to follow the racing as much as possible. I guess my favorite drivers to watch are Will Power and Dario Franchitti. I enjoy their rivalry and I think the fact that their strengths are so different makes it all the more interesting to watch!

No one can know the future, but ideally, do you see this as a stop along the way to transition back to the European ladder, or do you think the Mazda Road to Indy will be your path?

JH: My focus is completely on progressing up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. I have some great memories from racing in Europe but now that is all behind me and I am really excited to start a new chapter in my career and try to make my dreams of winning in INDYCAR a reality. I am in a really good place for 2012 with Team Pelfrey, and I believe I have the ability and mindset to get to where I want to be. American open wheel racing is my future, focus and hopefully destiny. Indianapolis is the home of motorsport and so where better place to race than there?!

Monday, November 28, 2011

2012 An Important Year For Mazda Road To Indy

I absolutely love the concept of the Mazda Road to Indy; your champion from each ladder series obtains a scholarship to run in the next rung up. It's an incentive for doing well; a bit of hope to the financially strapped yet deserving driver trying to fight his way to the pinnacle of American open wheel racing. It isn't perfect, but it's a great start for ensuring a potential way forward and a planned path to the IZOD IndyCar Series.

To date, we've only had a season's worth of data to see how the program has worked. So far, it has to be given a mixed grade. While USAC's Bryan Clauson did well enough with his time in Firestone Indy Lights, 2010 Lights champ JK Vernay could not secure a billet in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

USF2000 and Star Mazda, on the other hand, seemed to work well. USF2000 champ Sage Karam came on strong towards the end of the 2011 Star Mazda season, and Star Mazda champ Conor Daly won in Lights while running a partial schedule.

The good news is, there are plenty of deserving drivers throughout the American open wheel ladder system. Star Mazda should mix it up with a ton of excellent young prospects once again, and Indy Lights, though lacking large car counts, will likely produce at least a couple of drivers ready to make the leap to the big cars. But what's really going to be examined in 2012 is graduation and retention. Are the drivers receiving enough of a scholarship to truly assist in climbing the ladder? Once they're there, can they continue on the ladder or gain additional attention to help out?
Karam: Continuing Up The Ladder?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

Of course, the system won't bat .1000, but it is important that we see these elements of graduation and retention in the system. Watching Petri Suvanto, Tristan Vautier, and Josef Newgarden, as well as Bryan Clauson, Sage Karam, and Conor Daly, as we mark how their careers progress, will be a good indicator in how well INDYCAR is doing their part to encourage young talent.

I've discussed Newgarden's 2012 scenarios recently; as a deserving Firestone Indy Lights champion, you've got to hope he makes the jump to the IZOD IndyCar Series in a solid ride. A ladder series has to go to the top, not just 3/4s of the way. Fortunately, I do think he's perhaps in a bit better situation than his predecessor.

Additionally, we'll also see how the further efforts to involve USAC in the ladder pan out. As USAC National Champ, Clauson will again be working on a program somewhere along the INDYCAR ladder. I've argued before we should see him in the 500 this year; but the jury's still out on whether or not that will happen. I'm also curious to see how USAC guys like Jacob Wilson do in their crossover attempts, as well as if the series visibly does any networking with young prospects such as Kyle Larson. If we want grassroots involvement in the ladder series, increased USAC involvement is obviously the place to start.

American open wheel racing has a lot of perks and opportunities, which is one of the reasons why we see our friends from across the pond decide to call Indianapolis home. There's excellent talent in the ranks, both American and international, and there should be no shortage of incredible competition at each level. With another year of seeing how the Mazda Road to Indy is faring, we should have a much clearer picture of the program's overall strengths and weaknesses in bringing that talent along.

Friday, November 25, 2011

INDYCAR Thoughts And Review, Black Friday Edition

-We have to start with the loss of Jim Rathmann this week. The 1960 Indy 500 winner will long be remembered for his truly epic duel with Rodger Ward, as part of a race that saw the most lead changes in 500 history. There was a lot to tell in his story on the track--switching names with his brother "Dick", his multiple runner-up finishes at Indy before finally having his day, winning the Race of Two Worlds at Monza, and even being named to the Greatest 33 list during the Centennial Celebration.

Rathmann at Indy in 1961.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
His career is one that stretched from the tail end of the post-war era, to the final glory days of the roadsters, to the beginning years of the rear-engine revolution. His legacy stands on its own, but his passing is also a reminder for us to learn what we can while we can from the heroes of a classic era gone by.

-With Takuma Sato looking like at least a decent possibility for a seat at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year, I put up a poll over at Trackforum asking which driver out of the current names being circulated they'd like to see in a second RLLR seat. The responses were all over the place, with Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice, Bertrand Baguette, and Pippa Mann the top vote-getters. It doesn't prove a thing, except to illustrate that seat has become one of the more intriguing ones of this silly season, perhaps only behind Andretti's GoDaddy Car and the second seat at KV in terms of intrigue.

-In case you missed it, here's a neat story on IndyCar technology coming to child safety seats.

-Lastly, it is Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. If you're deranged dedicated enough to be out shopping in the midst of the pandemonium, don't forget Brickyard Authentics will be having special sales now through November 28, perfect for that loved one or favorite blogger on your list.

Have a great weekend, sleep off that turkey, and we'll catch up on Monday.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving From IndyCar Advocate

I want to wish all IndyCar Advocate readers and friends a very Happy Thanksgiving. Even through all the challenges, we truly are blessed to have the freedoms we enjoy, and to be able to follow the best sport in the world.

Also, a big, BIG thank you to the troops serving this Thanksgiving, especially the ones spending it deployed overseas, away from their families. Many people will never know the extent of your sacrifice, but nothing we do would be possible without you. We’re thankful to have you this holiday season, and you’ll be in our thoughts and prayers throughout. Come home soon, and come home safely.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another Six Quick Questions With Jay Howard

One of my favorite drivers to interview is Jay Howard. He’s direct, funny, and lets you know how things stand. We managed to track him down for an encore round of Six Quick Questions, where we talk about marriage, sponsors, the 2012 season, and kicking NASCAR’s tail. Read on!

First off, Jay, congratulations! We understand you’re a married man now! You didn’t get a bunch of fondue sets or anything as wedding gifts, did you?

JH: Thanks! Mate, I got more cooking material than Hell's Kitchen! Problem is, how do I put this.... Courtney is not much of a cooking expert, sooooo...

It looks like it’s going to be a busy offseason. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (your team this year) is coming back full-time in the Series for 2012. Based on your time with that team, how do you think they’ll do in the transition from part-time to full-time IZOD IndyCar Series entrants?

JH: I think they will do a good job, considering we were a part-time team this year, although on paper the results didn't reflect our performance, we had very good race cars. Everything didn't quite go to plan with the races I ran with them and this is one of the problems being part-time.

Speaking of your time with RLLR in 2011, what’s your best memory from this past season?

JH: Every start of each race, I passed a lot of cars, it was a ton of fun! At Indy, I moved up from 20th to 10th before the first pit stop. At Texas, I moved from 28th to 11th and in Vegas I went from 28th to 14th in 11 laps. That's exactly what you want to be able to do, move up through the field.

Obviously, I know you can’t discuss particulars, but do you have any sort of feeling on how your plans for 2012 are progressing?

JH: Things are looking good, I am very optimistic to be full-time, which is what I need, part-time is just so tough for many reasons, fingers crossed!

Do you have any feel for how potential sponsors are reacting to INDYCAR in general? In a tough market, are things getting easier or even tougher in terms of securing sponsorship?

JH: For me, we are on the right track; it’s been a little easier for me personally to find sponsors, so I am very happy with how things are going. Randy does an awesome job, the future is bright for us all!

Finally, we understand you’ll be one of the drivers representing INDYCAR versus NASCAR in December’s Indy Karting Classic, along with drivers such as Alex Tagliani and Tomas Scheckter. Be honest: you’re going to beat the crap out of the NASCAR guys, aren’t you?

JH: Is grass green? Yes of course we are!!!! Got to fly that IndyCar flag for sure! It will be a great event. I can't wait to be there and don't you worry, I am going there to win!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Regarding Newgarden

I was really pleased when Josef Newgarden entered Firestone Indy Lights last year; this is a prospect that’s long been on a number of radars as a guy who could be a future American star in open wheel racing. Of course, like many racers, he’s had to fight funding demons over the years, so it was great to see him win that Firestone Indy Lights scholarship as that series’ champion.

Of course, as we well know, that scholarship does not equal a full-time ride, or even a partial one; whispers last year were that 2010 Lights champ JK Vernay didn’t impress enough in his IndyCar tests to secure a ride. Whether or not that’s the case, Vernay is no longer part of the Mazda Road to Indy.

So will Newgarden fare any better? I certainly hope so; I believe he could definitely be a big part of the IZOD IndyCar Series in the near future, if given a chance. Curt Cavin’s blog, although not specifically naming him, seems to float the idea he could be part-time at Sam Schmidt Motorsports in their second car (with Simon Pagenaud basically confirmed as their primary driver next year). Honestly, I’d rather see Newgarden in a part-time competitive ride than a non-competitive full-time one, if it comes down to it.

Josef might trail only Justin Wilson in terms of potential scenarios as far as where he goes for 2012; various suggestions have included Andretti Autosport and even AJ Foyt Enterprises. But it’s important to remember that Schmidt basically has first dibs on the young driver. I don’t think he’d hold him back, and it also might turn out that a second car at SSM is the best bet for the would-be rookie.

We won’t see anything close to the mass rookie class from Lights we saw this year (Hinch, Pippa, Kimball, Saavedra, etc.), but it is important that the ladder series functions as a true ladder, especially for a deserving young talent such as Newgarden. With the car count up and scholarship money in play, let’s hope something can be worked out for him.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lotus Blossoms?

It might have been a quiet summer and fall from where the fans sit for Lotus, but they’ve been announcing some big moves in the last few days.

Not only did Wednesday bring news that Bryan Herta Autosport and HVM Racing would be “partner” teams, being heavily involved in early testing and configuration for the team, but Dreyer and Reinbold Racing made its long-awaited announcement Thursday, joining the mix as the third “partner” team as well. This triad will join previously-announced Michael Shank Racing as the current roster of Lotus-powered teams for 2012.

Of the remaining teams without a confirmed engine deal—Ed Carpenter Racing, Dale Coyne, Sarah Fisher, and Conquest, primarily—it sounds as if at least Conquest will also be with Lotus, though that’s yet to be confirmed in print. My guess is Conquest and possibly one other team, but things change).

No, the first Lotus tests in the DW12 aren’t until January. But with John Judd working on their engine, the somewhat disconcerting silence around their program newly dissipated, and things finally starting to shift into place, you get the idea that maybe this is going to work out after all.
Courtesy IndyCar Media

True, none of the signed Lotus teams are generally considered top-tier teams; whether for a lack of slots at Honda or Chevy or for other considerations, they’re at Lotus (though it should be pointed out it doesn't mean these teams are held in poor regard, either). It all feeds into a scenario that feels primed for your standard, pre-fabricated, David-and-Goliath storyline. How many times have we seen someone say, “Man, I hope Lotus is a huge success year”? How great would it to see drivers such as Simona de Silvestro at HVM or Alex Tagliani at BHA run wild with a competitive, hard-charging Lotus? But could it really happen, when the conventional wisdom from many corners has been that Lotus will be a step behind?

They’ve been slow out of the gate, yes, and they don’t have the R&D power of someone like Honda behind them, true. And with all the talk of the Lotus/Judd engine being lighter than its competitors, we still don’t know how things will go until testing really gets underway, and even then we’ll have questions until we see how they run in anger. But hope is a great thing. So is intrigue. With the third engine manufacturer starting to roar, INDYCAR can claim both right now.

Skeptics, take your shots. Lovers of the underdog, make your defense.And enjoy the fact you get to do so with the promise of eating crow or gloating trimphantly come spring.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The 1932 Indy 500

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway just released for the first time ever online photos from the 1932 Indy 500. It's really something to look through and see what's changed (and what's still the same!) about the Speedway from almost 80 years ago.

The amount of history that IMS has been tasked with preserving is simply mind-boggling. I love seeing these digitization efforts, because it means there's that much more history that will be there for this generation and the next.

The big trivia from 1932 is that Howdy Wilcox II finished 2nd in his only Indy 500, almost becoming the second man named Howdy Wilcox (1919) to win the race. Due to his diabetic condition, however, he would not be allowed to race in subsequent 500s.

Fred Frame won the race, but my other favorite piece of trivia from the 1932 race is that the only foreign driver was the Argentinian Juan Gaudino, making his only successful qualification attempt for the Indy 500, driving a Chrysler "Gold Seal Special". (Gaudino had clutch issues, finishing 26th--out of 40 drivers starting the race!--after being replaced by Joseph Bonadeo for the last 4 laps of his day). Gaudino would also work as replacement driver for Raoul Riganti the next year in a 14th place finish. (For those interested, I found this article from the old Pittsburgh Press on Gaudino while doing research for another column). It's another footnote to Indy, but I always wonder about the old names and entries. There's an entire story behind every one, even if we only catch glimpses of it from these little bits of history.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Send Clauson To The Indy 500

This weekend, Bryan Clauson clinched the USAC National Driver's Championship. This is a repeat of 2010's result, which allowed Clauson to receive an ovals-only scholarship to Firestone Indy Lights as part of the Mazda Road to Indy program. This year, it would seem he's ready to do the same.

But should INDYCAR look to send Clauson to Lights in 2012? Apparently, there's a chance he might get some sort of shot in the IZOD IndyCar Series. In my opinion, what the Series should do is help him find a ride for next year's Indy 500.

The young 22 year-old driver represents authentic, grassroots racing talent, and after his performance in Lights last year, you get the feeling he'd at least hold his own on American open wheel racing's biggest stage. It was great having him around for the Firestone Freedom 100 last May--fans seemed to respond well to him being there, and I would think that would only grow with him joining a team and trying to qualify for Indy.

I understand these aren't the days of Rich Vogler or Roger Rager, but at a time where the overall sponsorship situation in NASCAR has slowed some of their recruitment of the dirt and sprint car hometown heroes, INDYCAR's steps towards involving USAC in their Road to Indy have been a step in the right direction. It's given a bit of hope for those who want victories in Salem and Winchester to be a viable avenue once more for a driver to one day get that shot at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Bryan Clauson has already completed in Firestone Indy Lights, with pretty decent results. Drivers have contested Indy with far less impressive resumes than Clauson can boast. Hopefully INDYCAR works with Clauson this year to structure his scholarship to give both a young driver and a time-honored legacy a proper chance at the Indianapolis 500.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11/11 INDYCAR Thoughts & Review

Here’s a couple of quick thoughts on the INDYCAR news of the last few days:

-I really hope having the China race in August helps avoid any sort of momentum killing at the end of the year, which seemed to be a big drawback of the Motegi race. Speaking of China, you have to think this heightens the odds we see Ho-Pin Tung for at least one race.

-3.78 miles is a pretty long street course! Let’s hope it’s a good one, and INDYCAR cleans up on the deal. If we’re going all the way to China, you have think it’s financially well worth their while.

-Moving onto Mike Conway, it sounds like his plans are still quite up in the air. If he doesn’t manage a way to land back at Andretti, part of me wonders if he’s a possibility to head back to Dreyer & Reinbold in their second car. Too many DNFs, but we know he can win, too.

-While Andretti tested James Davison and Gustavo Yacaman, you still have to wonder about Josef Newgarden. Depending on where Justin Wilson goes, I really could see him in at Andretti. I know Sam Schmidt holds the option on him, but Michael Andretti likes his American drivers, and Newgarden could be a star in the next few years. Maybe he jets off to Europe, maybe he finds a quality drive in IndyCar. However it ends up, someone is getting a very good, younger driver for their team. By the way, if you missed the RACER article on Josef, don't!

-Pippa Mann might have been injured in the season finale, but don’t tell that to her fighting spirit. Anyone following her on Twitter lately has been shown a feisty driver ready to get back to driving as soon as possible. I think she’s a heck of an ambassador for the series, and I really hope there’s a spot for her in 2012 to get back out there. You never know how things will go, but she seems optimistic at the least about her ’12 chances.

-Speaking of 2012, will someone PLEASE hire Tomas Scheckter full-time? I really hope this is the year he gets back to being full-time. Every driver is hopeful in the offseason, but I’d like to think some of the hints we’ve heard here and there mean good things for him. It’s great to have big personalities in the Series, and no one could argue TScheck is the definition of that, whether you like him or not. In any case, Tomas is waiting on Justin Wilson to make up his mind, just like the rest of us.

-Finally, a huge, huge, HUGE thank you to our servicemen and women serving around the world on this Veterans Day. Words fail, but make it home safe, come to Indy, and a pork tenderloin is on me.

Have a great weekend, and join us next week, where we’ll be digging into some good stuff!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Race Scanner Advice Needed

This is a little off the beaten path, but due to still being under the weather and waiting on some interviews to come together, I thought I'd put the question to my wise, wise readership. I've never been a race scanner guy, preferring just to watch the on-track action unfold before me. I've listened in on scanners before, sure, but have never picked up one of my own. But I've grown interested in them enough to want to purchase one this winter. I don't want to break the bank, but would like a nice, sturdy set that will hold up well over the INDYCAR season Basically, I'd love to hear your recommendations as to what model or brand to check out, what features I might want, etc.

The thought crossed my mind that other fans might have the same question, so please, any useful hints or recommendations you might have, please share them in the comments below. Thanks!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Waiting For Wilson

It's no secret that an awful lot of how INDYCAR silly season pans out depends on where Justin Wilson decides to go. Much attention has been given how he basically has a wide variety of choices in where he drives next year; teams such as Andretti Autosport, KV Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, and even Michael Shank Racing have been rumored or are known to be interested in his services.

It's a prime spot for the 33 year-old veteran, as his experience and skill on road courses in particular make him the big free agent in the offseason. Further, he is well-respected in the paddock, as evidenced by being part of the triumvirate of drivers who have been been seen as leaders both before and especially after the Wheldon tragedy. Along with Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti, Wilson is seen as a veteran, uniting voice for the drivers. He would seem exactly the sort of driver you'd want when you're shaking down a new car.

Yet whether or not Wilson goes to Andretti or chooses one of the other potential paths, a lot of teams and seats would appear to be in a holding pattern right now. A seat at Andretti, a seat at KV, the identity of Michael Shank's driver, the direction Rahal Letter Lanigan goes, even the seemingly remote chance he chooses to stay with Dreyer and Reinbold--it's all going to be impacted by his choice. That's not a scenario we see a driver in too often, is it?

That's not to say he can just hop right over to any ride he chooses. For many of the potential offers, it sounds like there'd be plenty of details still to work out. Of course, it's always nice to find the seat early in the musical chairs that makes up the INDYCAR offseason.

On a TrackForum poll I started over the weekend asking where Wilson should go for 2012, the responses are split. Last I checked, Andretti was running around 44%, KV Racing 25%, RLLR 20%, and Other 11%. From conversations online, it would seem like most fans do believe Andretti Autosport is where he will end up.

So what if the fan opinion is mirrored by that of Wilson? Does he go to the seat that would have been Dan Wheldon's? One thing's for sure, if you're looking for a friendly, classy, and well-respected driver to fill that seat (which is perhaps an awkward thing to discuss, I understand), I don't see how anyone could complain with the choice of Justin Wilson.

So, I put the question to the readers as well: where should Justin Wilson go? Should he fill the GoDaddy seat at Andretti Autosport? Or should he be Tony Kanaan's next teammate at KV Racing? Should he look for opportunities at Rahal Letterman Lanigan, or is there somewhere else you'd like to see him in 2012? Wherever he decides to race in 2012, it will be the first step in figuring out where a lot of drivers are going to go.

Friday, November 4, 2011

So, INDYCAR Back To Vegas?

INDYCAR's CEO Randy Bernard did a nice job touching off a flurry of activity on Twitter last night, by asking if fans would be up for a Las Vegas street race.

It seemed as if the response was generally enthusiastic, although to be fair, there are certainly folks who are in no hurry to see another street course, even for Las Vegas, added to the schedule. Drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, and Charlie Kimball chimed in quickly to add their support for such an event.

I think a lot of fans feel going back to the Las Vegas oval would be problematic for next year, if not indeed a longer time span (I'm undecided on how I'd feel about returning). I love ovals, but I'd really like to see both a Vegas street race and another oval found to replace Vegas (perhaps easier said than done at this late juncture, I know).

Just for fun, I dug up the 2007 Vegas Grand Prix from Champ Car's final season (in a complete shock to no one, Will Power won the event). You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here. Here's John Oreovicz's recap of the event. I like the Champ Car course, but there's always something better. If RB could get the city to agree to something on or adjoining the Strip, how huge would that be?

While I'm dreaming, I'd love to see a Las Vegas course run at night. If you really want an iconic race, run with the the neon lights of the Strip on brilliant display in the background. If we could do at the the Grand Prix of Houston at night, there's got to be a way to do it in Vegas (I know, I know, Houston was run in Reliant Park, but still). I think Vegas is an exciting, vibrant market where Randy Bernard has a lot of contacts and pull, still a ton of potential, and I hope the series works something out to get it done.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Power Of A Press Release (Or Two)

After yesterday’s column, I was sitting here thinking about how I just didn’t see how some of the drivers I really like were going to manage to be full-time next year. I was trying to figure the odds for drivers such as Martin Plowman, Bertrand Baguette, Pippa Mann, Josef Newgarden, Jay Howard, Ed Carpenter, and others.

After yesterday afternoon, we all should have a little bit more confidence that a couple more of the drivers we want to see have a chance at a seat for 2012. Not only will Ed Carpenter be full-time with his new team, Ed Carpenter Racing, but Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing announced plans to field two full-time cars next year.

(And yes, I did an impromptu happy dance. Didn't everyone?)

First off, Ed Carpenter Racing. Tony George is co-owner, and it sounds as if Derrick Walker might also have a place with the team. Fuzzy’s Vodka was a personal sponsor for Ed this year, and of course he won the 2010 Kentucky pole in Fuzzy’s livery with Panther Racing. Apparently, the racing and personal relationship to this point was enough to net a 3-year sponsorship deal. Fuzzy’s had been hinting at an announcement, but really, this was a far bigger deal than I think many of us were expecting.

Sadly, Ed rejected the "Fuzzy Vision
Racing" team name.
(Image Courtesy IndyCar Media) 

Like a lot of fans, I’m curious to see how Ed starting his own team pans out for Sarah Fisher Racing. With their tremendous win at Kentucky not too far in the past, Sarah’s definitely lost a very good ovals driver for 2012. As they look to field what will likely be a partial schedule, I wonder what sort of driver ends up there. For SFR and for the fans, I hope whoever is in there is as good a fit for the team as Carpenter turned out to be.

If Ed Carpenter Racing takes care of where one driver will be, Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s announcement opens up possibilities for many other drivers. Free agents such as Indy 500 champ Buddy Rice, Bertrand Baguette, Jay Howard, and Pippa Mann all have connections to this team. Vitor Meira spent two years there. Alex Lloyd’s Indy 500 ride in 2008 was partially with them. If they do manage to field two full-time drivers as is their plan, that could be a great landing spot for any one of a number of drivers still looking for a solid berth for ’12.

Let’s not forget that more teams, more seats should mean more employment for those racing folks looking for work. We know there are some quality people out there (mechanics, PR folks) who would love jobs in this series. Fingers crossed this is the catalyst for some good things for those individuals.

Silly season can kick your butt, but it also can provide some truly great moments. Wednesday afternoon turned out to be one of those great moments for the fans and boosters of INDYCAR. We’ll have our rollercoaster ride this offseason, but this is one of the good times. Let’s bask in it for a bit.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What Will The Rookie Class Look Like For 2012?

While listening to Trackside last night (great episode, by the way), I started making note of potential rookies mentioned for 2012. We're coming off a season where James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand gave us one of the best rookie fights we've had in a number of years for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Drivers such as Martin Plowman and Wade Cunningham also made positive impressions in limited campaigns.

But what will 2012 bring in terms of rookies? Will we see as intense a battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year as we did this year? Will there be a late, relative unknown enter the field, ala James Jakes for Dale Coyne Racing?

If you're talking prospective rookies, you have to start with Simon Pagenaud. Impressive in his few races this past season, the French driver has long been a favorite of Honda. Linked with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, there's been some good buzz in regards to him joining full-time in 2012. He'd be one of the more experienced rookies in the field, between ALMS and ChampCar. You have to think he'd be one of the early top prospects for Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

(The question has come up; given Simon's year in ChampCar, would INDYCAR still consider him a rookie? The answer appears to be yes, if you look at results from last year. He was noted as a rookie in the box scores as such for his 3 races).

In terms of rookies we might see full-time in 2012, right now Josef Newgarden has to be the #2 candidate. The Firestone Indy Lights champ will have some funding from his FIL scholarship, but where he ends up right now is anyone's guess. He's been mentioned everywhere from SSM to Foyt to Andretti Autosport, but nothing sounds too concrete.

After Pagenaud and Newgarden, it's pretty fuzzy. Martin Plowman seems to be working on some things, if a couple of Twitter hints mean anything. He was in the rumor mill as potentially full-time before the 2011 season began, and did well in his races with AFS/SSM. Plowey's gained some fans over the course of the year with his personality, character, and results, and seems at least a viable candidate for one of the open teams out there.
Will Newgarden find a full-time seat for 2012?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

For the rest, really, it's a crapshoot. Wade Cunningham waited a long time to make his IndyCar debut, and was quite impressive in his race at Kentucky. It would be a surprise right now, though (however pleasant), if he were to be full-time in 2012. Pippa Mann is a fan favorite, but as she works through her recovery on her injured finger, we'll have to wait and see what she's able to put together for next year. Ho-Pin Tung is a total cipher. As a believer in second chances, I'd love to see Dillon Battistini get at least a one-off at some point. And there's always the chance someone from Formula Renault 3.5 or GP3 shows up, ala Bertrand Baguette (2010) or James Jakes (2011). Ultimately, guess as we might, we can never 100% sure who might be showing up to the party.

It's always a smart idea to watch Conquest Racing as we get a bit closer to the season. In 2010, they ran Baguette and Mario Romancini (as well as Francesco Dracone). For 2011, we saw them give rookies Sebastian Saavedra, Mann, and Battistini a chance. Conquest might not be considered a top team, but they are a way for rookies to find a way out on track. Who they sign for 2012 might be a good indicator of how things pan out out for some of the other rookies' situations.

In Indy Lights, Esteban Guerrieri was rumored for Sonoma last year, but that didn't happen. My hunch is he stays another year in Lights. I can see the same developing with Stefan Wilson, and depending on their team, I'd say both those drivers have enough to win a Lights championship while looking forward to 2013.

With a new car and fewer "extras" likely in 2012, it might be a tough year for rookies to get some of the big opportunities we saw this year. But that doesn't mean there aren't some good options out there. It's one of the downers to silly season--at some point, you realize all the drivers you want to see likely won't be in the series at full time. But it does make you appreciate the ones you do get to see that much more.
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